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Election 2016: A summary of four statewide criminal justice initiatives

This Election Day, California voters have the opportunity to make significant changes to the state’s juvenile and criminal justice system. CJCJ has studied policy issues addressed by some of the initiatives on California’s 2016 ballot, including marijuana legalization, death penalty reform, decarceration measurements, and the prosecution of youth as adults.

Proposition 57

Prop 57 would repeal a practice called “direct file” — wherein district attorneys can file charges against youth as young as 14 years old directly in adult court without the input of a judge. It would also increase parole eligibility for some offenses, and incentivize participation in rehabilitation programs by revising the earned “good time” credits system for people in state prisons. CJCJ has published a number of studies analyzing the use of direct file, and has found that youth of color are more likely to be filed in adult court, the likelihood of youth being direct filed depends on his or her location, and the use of direct file has increased as serious youth crime has decreased.

A recent study by CJCJ, the National Center for Youth Law, and the W. Haywood Burns Institute also found that direct file disparately affects youth of color, with African American youth 10.8 times more likely to be prosecuted as adults than white youth, and Latino youth 3.4 times more likely in 2015. The use of direct file can also be motivated by partisan politics. An additional CJCJ study found that Republican district attorneys were 2.4 times more likely to direct file youth overall compared to Democratic DAs, and were fives times more likely to direct file African American youth and 9.4 times more likely to direct file Asian youth.

Disparity gap in rate of direct file per 100,000 youth ages 14-17

Prop 57 would also increase parole eligibility for some offenses, and allow the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop an incentive structure for those incarcerated in state prisons to earn “good time” credits in exchange for enrolling in rehabilitative programs and demonstrating good behavior. Moreover, people convicted of nonviolent offenses will become newly eligible for parole after serving the full sentence for their primary offense.

Proposition 62 vs. Proposition 66

Two propositions address California’s use of the death penalty. Prop 62 would repeal the death penalty, while Prop 66 limits the appeal process. CJCJ has published studies finding the death penalty does not deter serious crimes, and are costly, traumatic, and prone to error.

A “yes” vote for Prop 62 would abolish the death penalty and retroactively replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole as the maximum sentence. Proponents say Prop 62 would save taxpayers $150 million in housing and court appeals costs, and would ensure that the state does not execute an innocent person. Indeed, a recent report from the University of Michigan found a record number of people were exonerated in 2015. The report found five people had been exonerated from death row in 2015, but 39 percent of those exonerated in the United States were found not guilty of murder. Half of those exonerated for murder were African American.

While few argue that California’s capital punishment process is satisfactory, proponents of Prop 66 believe that, rather than abolishing the death penalty, the legal appeals to death sentences should be limited. The initiative plans to accomplish this by requiring public defenders or appointed attorneys to accept death penalty appeals cases, and will also require state courts to complete appellate cases within 5 years of the death penalty judgment. However, as shown by the University of Michigan’s report, it can often take decades to prove innocence from death row: the five people exonerated from death sentences in 2015 had been in prison for 10-30 years.

Both measures purport to save taxpayer dollars—Prop 62 by doing away with all costs associated with the death penalty (CJCJ found that, on average, housing someone on death row costs $90,000 a year while average prison housing costs $34,000), and Prop 66 by eliminating some appellate procedural costs. However, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimates that Prop 66 could incur annual costs in the tens of millions of dollars in order to staff courts to adhere to the new timelines.

Proposition 64

Prop 64 legalizes recreational marijuana use for adults age 21 and over, and establishes some marijuana sales and cultivation taxes. CJCJ has written extensively about marijuana legalization and driving, decriminalization, and the effects on youth, people of color and crime.

California is one of five states with legalized recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot. Four states plus the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational marijuana use.

California decriminalized marijuana possession in 2011 for all ages by reducing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, carrying a maximum fine of $100. As a result, a 2014 CJCJ report found that arrests for marijuana possessions decreased by 67 percent for all ages after decriminalization in California. Data also showed that California experienced a 43 percent decrease in marijuana misdemeanor and felony arrests, such as the manufacturing, sale, and possession of quantities over an ounce.

However, the report also discovered, that while overall arrests for marijuana offenses decreased significantly in states with marijuana reform, African Americans were still disparately arrested for marijuana than all other races.

Average arrests for African Americans versus all other races before and after marijuana reform

Marijuana reform racial disparities

Note: “All other races/ethnicities” refers to people classified as any or race or ethnicity besides “black” or “African American,” including Asian, Hispanic, Latino, Native, other, unknown, white, or white/Hispanic. The four states with relevant post-reform data on all marijuana arrests/cases by race are California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Rates are 100,000 population by race, averaged for the four states. Sources Criminal Justice Statistics Center (California) (2013); Colorado State Judicial Branch (2014): CJJS (2014).


Related Links: 

The Prosecution of Youth As Adults: A 2015 Update

Reforming Marijuana Laws: Which Approach Best Reduces the Harms of Criminalization? A Five-State Analysis

A Taxpayers Guide to the California Death Penalty


Keywords: ballot initiative, death penalty, direct file, election 2016, marijuana legalization, marijuana reform, Prop 57, racial discrimination, racial disparity

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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